MacDougall Auctions 28 November 2008

28 November 2008

Artist Index / Full Catalogue

The Illumination of the Moscow Kremlin dedicated to the Coronation of Nicolai II, 18 May 1896

* 29. LEVITAN, ISAAK 1860-1900

The Illumination of the Moscow Kremlin dedicated to the Coronation of Nicolai II, 18 May 1896 inscribed with authentification by the artist's brother, A. Levitan

Oil on canvas, 50 by 81.5 cm.

Provenance: The work was acquired by the father of the present owner and has remained in the private collection for the last fifty years.
Private collection, Israel.

Authenticity has been confirmed by Vladimir Petrov.

Antique Salon J. Dazario, St. Petersburg-Moscow, label on the stretcher.

Exhibited: Collector’s Choice, Bezalel Museum (a.k.a. Museum of Israel), 1964, Jerusalem, Israel, No. 85.
Isaak Levitan: Sketches & Paintings, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 24 July-28 September 1991, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Literature: Exhibition catalogue, Collector’s Choice, Bezalel Museum, 1964, Jerusalem, Israel.
Exhibition catalogue, Isaak Levitan: Sketches & Paintings, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 24 July-28 September 1991, Tel Aviv, Israel, p. 25 illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Aya Lurie, Haim Gliksberg: Treasured in the Heart, Israel, 2005, p. 19.

A landscape artist by vocation, Levitan revealed the subtle beauty and serene grandeur of Russian nature with a deep sensitivity and lyrical perceptiveness, and rarely painted urban landscapes. With the exception of the now lost View of Simonov monastery, which was referred to by Nesterov, Moscow became the subject of the artist’s work on only one occasion – that of the Coronation in 1896. Adorned with festive decorations and illuminated by thousands of lights, the ancient capital produced such a dramatic impact that within a brief period of time Levitan was inspired to create several compositions entitled The Illumination of the Moscow Kremlin dedicated to the Coronation of Nicolai II, 18 May 1896. At the time of writing, three works bearing this title are known to exist. The first is presented here for auction, the second is held in the collection of the Dnepropetrovsk Museum of Art, and the final one was sold at auction by Christie’s on 28 November 2007.

The work presented here for auction represents a unique combination of a virtuoso panoramic landscape and the communication of an artificial lighting effect. The Illumination of the Moscow Kremlin dedicated to the Coronation of Nicolai II, 18 May 1896 is not only one of the very rare examples of Levitan’s works to depict an image of old Moscow, but also represents an extremely valuable historic document. This confident and laconic study, produced from the same aspect as the two other works, is a lovely example of the sweeping, free, dynamic style which is characteristic of Levitan’s later works. In it can clearly be seen the ability of the artist to use a single line to sketch out form and to indicate the contours of buildings and of the embankment. The artist achieves this particular mastery not through a painstaking observation to detail but, conversely, by using daubs of paint to convey tonal transitions, an evening atmosphere and the mood of a festive Moscow.

Virtually the whole of Levitan’s life was connected with Moscow. While still a little boy he came to the city with his parents from the western outskirts of the empire. The artist’s father, who was originally from a small European town, wanted to provide his children with an opportunity to make something of themselves.

In Moscow, Levitan and his brother entered the College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where Levitan made the acquaintance of Perov, Savrasov, Nesterov and Polenov, and his relationship with them would to a great extent determine his own creative path. Levitan was expelled from Moscow on two occasions as an “anabaptised Jew”: in 1879 after the attempt on the life of Alexander II, and again in 1892.

Levitan would invariably return from his trips around Russia and abroad to his familiar Moscow subjects, and the Moscow suburbs provided the scene for many of the master’s most recognisable masterpieces. It was also here that in 1898 he became the head of the landscape course at his “alma mater”. Apollinary Vasnetsov, who accepted this post after the death of the artist, had good cause to state that Levitan had been a “product of Moscow who was brought up by Moscow”.

The ascension of the new emperor to the throne briefly reinstated Moscow in its role as the historic centre of the Russian state. In the build-up to the coronation the ancient capital was transformed. It was decorated with illuminations which created the impression of a never ending fairyland. And, of course, not only the Moscow residents but also its artists enthusiastically surrendered to the charms of this “electric miracle”. Thus, for example, the legacy left by Bogoliubov included a portrayal of The Illumination of the Kremlin which was organised in honour of the coronation of Alexander III in 1883 (held in the M.A. Vrubel Omsk Provincial Museum of Figurative Arts), and yet another view entitled The Illumination of the Kremlin, painted by N. Gritsenko, is to be found in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery. The festive decorations which adorned Moscow in May 1896 for the coronation of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fedorovna, were the most magnificent that had been seen in the whole of the 19th century. Those who witnessed the beginning of the coronation festivities recalled decorative pavilions which had been constructed on the streets, triumphal gates, flags, grand corteges, the pealing of bells, crowds of people dressed in their finest clothes, and 40,000 lamps. “Moscow is one of a kind. A fantastic city”, recalled M.V. Sabashnikova as she described the coronation of Nicholas II, “but on that particular evening it had a particularly fairy tale like aspect to it. All the towers and churches, the crenellated walls of the Kremlin and the contours of the buildings were lit up as if on fire”. The journal Electricity published a detailed report on the organising of the Kremlin illumination in 1896. According to the report, “The Moscow illuminations during the recent coronation celebrations created the most beautiful spectacle. Against the background of this spectacle the Kremlin stood out dramatically, decorated as it was, extremely tastefully and elegantly, with thousands of lights. Using the power of electricity alone, it had been possible to decorate the spires and eagles of the Kremlin towers and the domes and crosses of the bell tower of Ivan the Great with lights.

Even the Spasskaya Tower clock was ablaze with lights, and the clock hands moved in tandem with illuminating lamps attached to them. The Moscow Electric Light Company provided power for the illuminations including 12,000 lamps and 11 Manzhen projectors. The signal to switch on the illuminations was the presentation to the Empress of a bouquet of fresh roses with lamps concealed within them, connected to a circuit of electrical wires which led to the bell tower of Ivan the Great. The entire organisation of the Kremlin illuminations was entrusted to the assistant electrical technician of the Ministry of the Imperial Court, mechanical engineer L.R. Shveda”.

Notes on symbols:
* Indicates 5% Import Duty Charge applies.
Ω Indicates 20% Import Duty Charge applies.
§ Indicates Artist's Resale Right applies.
† Indicates Standard VAT scheme applies, and the rate of 20% VAT will be charged on both hammer price and premium.